The narrator’s initial self-characterization is important to the story. He is a “safe” man, one who takes few risks and tries above all to conform. The most pragmatic concerns of financial security and ease of life are his priorities. He has made himself perfectly at home in the modern economy: he works as a lawyer dealing with rich men’s legal documents. He is therefore an opposite or complement to Bartleby in many ways.
He is also ill suited to be entrusted with the salvation of another. “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of the first great stories of corporate discontent. The emptiness of modern business life is an important theme. The description of the office is incredibly bleak: on one side, the windows open onto a light shaft, and on the other, the windows look out onto a brick wall. The landscape of Wall Street is completely unnatural, and one is cut off from nature and almost all living things. At night, this isolation also includes the absence of people.
The work environment is sterile and cheerless. Yet most adapt to it, with varying degrees of success. Though the narrator is a successful man, he is a victim, in some ways, of progress. He has lost the post he occupied during the central events of the story, as the position was deemed redundant and eliminated. The modern economy includes constant and unfeeling change, which comes at a cost. Doubling is a recurring theme in “Bartleby.” Bartleby is a phantom double of our narrator, and the parallels between them will be further explored later.
Nippers and Turkey are doubles of each other. Nippers is useless in the morning and productive in the afternoon, while Turkey is drunk in the afternoon and productive in the morning. Nippers’ ambition mirrors Turkey’s resignation to his place and the sad uneventfulness of his career, the difference coming about because of their respective ages. Nippers cherishes ambitions of being more than a mere scrivener, while the elderly Turkey must plead with the narrator to consider his age when evaluating his productivity.
Their vices are also parallel, in terms of being appropriate vices for each man’s respective age. Alcoholism is a vice that develops with time. Ambition arguably is most volatile in a man’s youth. These two characters are obviously not fleshed out; they are caricatures of different personalities found in the business world, and their silliness is stretched beyond the point of believable realism. They provide valuable comic relief in what is otherwise a somber and upsetting tale.
From the beginning, the description of Bartleby is striking. He is a person who seems already dead: he is described alternately as one would describe a corpse or as one would describe a ghost. Pale from indoors work, motionless, without any expression or evidence of human passion in him at all, he is a man already beaten.
Even his famous statement of non-compliance, “I would prefer not to,” is an act of exhaustion rather than active defiance. His success at getting away with his uncooperativeness comes from his very passivity, which seems to cast a spell over the narrator. It is not “I will not” but “I would prefer not,” emphasizing that Bartleby is acting out of emotional response rather than some philosophical or ethical choice. Bartleby will detach from the world in stages, beginning with this first statement.
With each time he reiterates the statement, he is renouncing one more piece of the world and its duties. The final renunciation will be of living itself, characteristically arrived at indirectly by the preference not to eat. The scenes in which the narrator asks the advice of his employees are always comical in tone. Each man reacts according to the dictates of the time of day: if it is morning, Nippers is fiery and Turkey benign, and if it is afternoon, Turkey is belligerent and Nippers calm. Their predictable reactions underscore their status as symbols or types rather than realistic characters. They also serve as the clowns of the story.
Bartleby and the narrator are more real, but both of them also have powerful allegorical roles. Note that these two share an office room, just as Nippers and Turkey do. Increasingly, Bartleby is described in ghostly terms, and a perceptive reader will soon realize that the ghost is in some ways the narrator’s phantom double. Note how often we see Bartleby as phantom, as when the narrator roars his name until he appears: “Like a very ghost, agreeably to the the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage” (19). Later, we learn that Bartleby haunts the building. Like a ghost, he lives in the office when no one else is there, when Wall Street is a desert, a landscape both completely unnatural and forlornly empty.
The narrator senses that there are parallels between himself and the scrivener, and Bartleby’s gloom infects him: “Before, I had never experienced aught but a not unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (23). Bartleby’s plight draws the narrator into depths of feeling that he did not know he was capable of. Part of Bartleby’s power over the narrator is that he somehow sees Bartleby as a part of himself. He, too, has been forced to adapt to the business world. But while he has adapted and gone through the consequent numbing (previous unable to feel more than a “not unpleasing sadness”), Bartleby has been bludgeoned to exhaustion.
Nothing pleases him about this world. The narrator, at different times, wants to help Bartleby. But we have been warned that the narrator is a safe man who thinks the easiest path is also the best. His pity for Bartleby turns to revulsion (see the passage from pp. 24-25, above). The narrator’s plight works through the themes of responsibility and compassion. His obligations, in one sense, are nothing. But as far as Bartleby is a living, suffering being, and that both men are “sons of Adam,” the narrator arguably should do all that he can.
To what extent is the narrator supposed to help the melancholic scrivener? Has he failed as a human being if he has done any less than all he can? After asserting that after a certain point, pity becomes revulsion, he defends the transformation: “They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill” (24-25). Yet the narrator goes on to describe the transformation as defensive.
Although he denies the charge that the pity-to-revulsion change is due to selfishness, his explanation of the motives behind it seem like little more than a selfishness that is philosophically justified. At work here is what Toni Morrison (an admirer of Melville) would call a shortage of love. Ironically, on the day his pity turns to revulsion, the narrator was on his way to Church.
The narrator never does make it to Church that day, and the symbolism is obvious. Though he was on his way to see a celebrity preacher, religion’s highest ideals do not win a place in the narrator’s heart: Melville, as he does in many of his works, is taking a small jab at religion and its inability to change men meaningfully for the better. The narrator will try to help Bartleby return home, but we will see that there are limits to what he feels he can do.
The office space of the modern business world undergoes some interesting conceptualizations in this section. At first, the narrator calls our attention to the desolateness of the office and of Wall Street: “Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness” (23). There are parallels between Bartleby’s experience of the workplace at night and his experience of the workplace in general share a similarity: he sees something that no one else sees. The desolation of Wall Street is part of Bartleby’s essential perception of it. The literal desolation at night is paralleled by the spiritual desolation during the day. Bartleby sees both, and through him the narrator gets some sense of them.
The narrator also makes an interesting move by describing the office as a site of savagery. He cites the example of a recent Wall Street murder, and explains why an office can be conducive to otherwise unthinkable acts: “Often it had occurred to me in my ponderings upon the subject, that had that altercation taken place in the public street, or at a private residence, it would not have terminated as it did. It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations . . .” (33-34). The office, a site of modern economic systems and progress, becomes a space like the jungle island in The Lord of the Flies. Something about the space is dehumanizing, and makes murder possible.
Finally, the narrator’s resolve to help Bartleby weakens, and it’s because of his work. Apparently, the modern office also makes possible the neglect of another human being. The narrator is certainly not an exception among humans for his choices: he puts up with more from Bartleby than anyone else does. But in the end, he makes choices that amount to abandonment of Bartleby.
If his action is something any human would do, then the abandonment of Bartleby is a comment on humanity. The ghostly descriptions of Bartleby are now extended to the narrator. He describes going up the stairs to his old office as “going upstairs to my old haunt” (42). The language is part of the expansion of Bartleby’s ghostly characteristics to the narrator and later, to all of humanity.
We see that Bartleby does not want to do anything; living itself tires him. In this way, “Bartleby the Scrivener” is more than just a didactic tract on the economic world of Melville’s day. The conditions of life are not easily changed, and the depictions of office sterility and isolation in a large, unnatural world seem equally applicable today. Bartleby is a creature unable to adapt to this world, because he is too honest about what appeals to him. Nothing in life excites him. When the narrator tries to suggest different occupations to Bartleby, the scrivener’s response is always the same: “I would prefer
The narrator’s offer to have Bartleby stay at his own home seems initially generous, but this belated offer of hospitality comes from a fear of scandal: a lawyer has threatened to publish the case in the papers. Yet one of the accomplishments of the story is that our narrator is basically a decent man. His abandonment of Bartleby is in no way exceptional, nor are we meant to see the narrator as more cruel or uncaring than the rest of humanity. If he fails Bartleby, we also must concede that most of us would fail him as well. Several times in the story, we are made to question Bartleby’s sanity. Ginger Nut gleefully suggests that Bartleby is insane: “I think, sir, he’s a little loony” (16). The narrator also apparently shares the opinion, as he confides to the grub-man that Bartleby is “a little deranged” (44).
But Bartleby, whatever his problems may be, is fully aware of the world around him. When the narrator greets Bartleby in prison, he’s condescending to him, speaking to him in the way that one condescends to the mad: “And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.” Bartleby’s reply is concise and curt: “I know where I am” (43). He is aware of the world. Notice also that there is a double meaning in the exchange. Both Bartleby and the narrator could be referring to the world itself. Bartleby is asserting that he can see the world around him clearly, and he apparently finds nothing to excite him. Environment has been important so far to the story, and Melville’s concise and powerful description of the prison yard continues the trend. Death imagery is abundant.
The description comes not during the first visit, but right before the narrator finds Bartleby’s death. He describes the character of the masonry as “Egyptian,” and mentions the “soft imprisoned turf” growing underfoot. “The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the clefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung” (45). For people of Melville’s day, even more so than now, “Egyptian” character would recall death, as the Egyptian civilization was known mostly through its funerary objects and elaborate burial practices. Incidentally, the Halls of Justice are called “The Tombs.”
The image of the turf is ambiguous. Is it an image of hope, or of imprisonment? “The heart of the eternal pyramids” is a pretty phrase, but the pyramids, it must be remembered, were tombs. Death itself is the only constant. The image of birds dropping seeds, which grow in spite of the hostile environment, is lyrical and powerful. But is the grass a metaphor for hope, and life’s persistence, the possibility of survival and beauty in a harsh environment? Or does the phrase “imprisoned turf” dominate the image? The grass then becomes battered, trapped life, with no hope of escaping the “Egyptian character” of the Tombs.
Mortality is not a theme here in the usual sense. Bartleby chooses his death, detaching from life in stages and sliding towards an inevitable end. The real death is more than an event in time: death is diffuse, a spiritual gloom pervading the empty Wall Street landscape, the imposing stonework of the prison, and the Dead Letter Office where Bartleby supposedly worked. Living is not the opposite of death, but a condition continually assaulted and permeated by it.
The final rumor is haunting and dark. We learn also that Bartleby lost the Dead Letter Office job due to an administration change. The doubling continues: remember that the narrator lost his position due to bureaucratic change as well. Here, the doubling is expanded. Bartleby is a phantom double not only for the narrator, but for all of humanity. The Dead Letter Office is a place of supreme gloom, where evidence of human mortality and the futility of our best intentions would have been unavoidable. The narrator, a man who adapts to this life, who thrives in the world that exhausted Bartleby, cannot help but be moved by Bartleby’s vision.
The tone of his final statement (“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”) is of a sadness mixed with resignation, a pained sigh rather than a shriek of anger. He has failed to help even one man. He can do nothing to alter the human condition.